Sunday, January 20, 2013

In Conversation with Mark Rice

Recently I read through the extremely epic Metallic Dreams by Mark Rice. I say epic because everything about this novel is big, including the fact that it cranks up the volume and does other stuff not entirely in polite company. Seriously. This is not the book you're going to give your grandma to read (go check out my review here). But by the time I finished the story, I knew I had to have Mark over, because I don't think I've encountered anyone yet who's as passionate about metal as he is... So welcome to my blog for a little, Q&A, Mark.

Metallic Dreams comes across almost semi-autobiographical when considering the bands that you make mention of. When did you have your metal epiphany, as it were?

Music was always a force in my life. My introduction to metal was tiered. As a toddler, I soaked up classical music from my father’s records and live performances. (The roots of true metal are in epic classical compositions, not in the simplistic blues stylings that gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll.) A few years later, my elder brother was part of the punk movement. I enjoyed the raw energy and aggressiveness of his music. Punk’s angst resonated with me, but I couldn’t have imagined the life-changing impact that was about to come in the form of heavy metal. At age ten, when I heard the riff of Saxon’s Princess of the Night carving through cold night air on the west coast of Scotland, my horizon blew open. Vivid images appeared in my mind, stirred up by the lyrics, “She used to be an iron horse twenty years ago, used to bring the mail to me through the ice and snow. I sat alone and watched her steaming through the night, ninety tons of thunder lighting up the skies. She was the princess of the night.” The hair on my arms and neck pricked up. Shivers trickled down my spine. Inside, my soul went berserk. The experience was at once visceral, cerebral, sensual, spiritual and celestial. I realised that this music had changed me: I had become a metal child. By the time I left primary school at age twelve, I’d amassed a huge amount of vinyl and cassettes, and had started going to live metal gigs at the Glasgow Apollo. First metal album bought: AC/DC – If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It). First metal gig: Iron Maiden, Glasgow Apollo, ‘Beast on the Road’ tour, 1982.

The novel is definitely not for the faint-hearted, and I suspect you deliberately went about finding as many ways as possible to be controversial. Knowing that this might alienate some readers, what were your motivations for this?

I set out with only one goal: to create the definitive work of heavy metal fiction. Certain elements of the story were bound to offend some people, but I didn’t worry about that. My job was to craft the story in its true form, not to dilute it. Controversy that followed – such as a castration threat from a Viking woman – was a side effect, but not something I had aimed for. Open-minded readers were always going to appreciate having their minds expanded, while those with delicate sensibilities were bound to be stunned by certain situations in Metallic Dreams. Shocking people into a higher state of awareness is more effective than preaching to them.  A writer can’t push the envelope if (s)he stays in a comfort zone, afraid of offending readers. To create original art, it is necessary to have an unflinching belief in one’s vision. Fearlessness is the key.

What are the top five songs that you'd compile into a set list of required listening for your Metallic Dreams readers? Why are these the "go to" songs in metal for you?

AC/DC – Whole Lotta Rosie, the live version from If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It). This is my favourite version of my favourite track by my favourite lineup of my favourite band. As such, it has to be on the list. I walked through a snowstorm for an hour to buy this, the first metal album I ever had on vinyl. I wandered home oblivious to the cold, spellbound as I held the record in my hands, gazing in awe at the cover. The album was recorded live at the legendary Glasgow Apollo (RIP), the venue of my earliest metal gigs. The crowd’s energy is more palpable than on any other live album I’ve heard. Part of that energy must derive from the audience’s excitement over AC/DC returning to Scotland as conquering heroes. (Angus and Malcolm Young were born in Glasgow, Scotland – as was I - while Bon Scott was born in Kirriemuir, farther north in a Scottish burgh called, amazingly, Angus.)

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band – Last of the Teenage Idols. Since SAHB burst onto the music scene in the 1970s, Scottish legend Alex Harvey has influenced every Glasgow band worth their salt. Metallic Dreams contains many tips o’ the hat to Alex. I placed some in clear sight and hid others as ‘Easter eggs’ for diehard fans to discover, as I did with myriad other musical references throughout the book. The title Last of the Teenage Idols was inspired by a ‘teenage idol’ competition run by a Glasgow newspaper, and won by Alex. In the early chapters of Metallic Dreams, Spark MacDubh and four of his friends start a band in their teens, partly motivated by a desire to be teenage idols.  At various points in the story, they discuss Alex Harvey and his contribution to Scottish culture.

Amorphis – I of Crimson Blood. While writing Metallic Dreams, Amorphis’s Silent Waters was one of my most listened-to albums. Not only is I of Crimson Blood a perfect example of metal virtuosity, its lyrical themes reflect some of the novel’s ideals: transcendence; loss; heritage; blood.

Wintersun – Land of Snow and Sorrow. This track hadn’t been released when Metallic Dreams was published, but it has a strange and serendipitous link to the book. A huge fan of Wintersun’s debut album, I bought one of their T-shirts several years ago. It featured the words ‘Far Away There’s a Land of Snow and Sorrow’ on the back. I liked the alliterative impact of ‘snow and sorrow’ and realised that the imagery it evoked was in line with events in the opening chapters of my novel. As a mark of respect to Wintersun, I revised my story’s third chapter (which describes the main character’s resurrection) to include the sentences, ‘Moments ago I was killed by snow and sorrow. Now I’m buzzing with life.’ This is another example of an ‘Easter egg’ for eagle-eyed metallists to discover. A couple of months ago Wintersun released their long-awaited second album, which contains the track Land of Snow and Sorrow, written after Wintersun’s frontman had discovered Metallic Dreams. I gazed in amazement at the words of the first verse. They perfectly described Spark MacDubh’s death, resurrection and re-rentry into the world. So a band in Finland created a T-shirt featuring three words that inspired a Scottish writer to revise his book and include those three words, after which – by chance or serendipity – the main man in the Finnish band read the book in question and then expressed one of its story arcs through the lyrics to the song named after the T-shirt that inspired the writer who wrote the novel that inspired the musician who created the T-shirt featuring the words…  Makes the head spin, eh?  I’ve often come across mutual respect in metal, but never more serendipitously than in this example. How does the song sound?  Listen for yourself. There’s no band more original, innovative, musically accomplished or groundbreaking than Wintersun.  Flawless!

Saxon – Princess of the Night. My first experience of metal, this track sounds as fresh and relevant now as it did when it was recorded three decades ago. Early last year Saxon requested signed copies of Metallic Dreams – one for each member of the band, one for their manager and four for the road crew. Happy to oblige, I personalised each copy then posted them to the band’s manager in Germany. A few months later, I was put on the guest list for Saxon’s gig in Glasgow. After the show, when I was hanging out with the band and their manager, Leo, they signed my paperback copy of Metallic Dreams. So each member of Saxon has a copy signed by me, and my copy is signed by all five of them (and Leo). One of my most surreal experiences was listening to Saxon’s Biff Byford discussing his reactions to my book, which he had been reading on his tour bus as it crossed Europe.  Life-affirming.

You've got exactly 16 words to describe Spark MacDubh to someone who's never heard of Metallic Dreams before. Go!

A hairy philosophical savage with music in his soul and love in his heart. Scottish. Relentless.

Here's your chance to share snippets of what at least three reviewers have said about Metallic Dreams... 

“Halfway through the first reading, I started thinking I couldn't wait to finish it so that I could start reading it all over again.”  – Princess Ducky

“Mindwarpishness isn't the book's only style. At times it felt like an Irvine Welsh novel, not just because of the dialects used, but because of the humour and slightly askew views of normal life. Obviously it’s Welsh off heroin and on heavy metal instead. It's certainly a rollercoaster of a book that takes you on a tale of redemption and discovery, anchored around a very genuine set of relationships which, if you can't relate to them, highlight that you have no real friends and a very drab childhood to look back on.”  – Godzilla

“I read this book at lightning pace over the past two days: on the bus, in my bed, at the breakfast table, in the factory canteen.  It is a slice of fried gold as ever there was. A brilliant read, Scottish Heavy Metal!  Hah!” – Jimmy McCarthy, haggischorizo metal blog

“He loves the written word, and has such a precision of language and ease with his prose that many other writers would be well advised to read this just to understand what it means to strive for excellence in one's manuscript. All that aside, it is a fun read and a great rock and roll ride.”  – Anne-Marie Klein, author of Behind Blue Eyes

“The first surprise was how poetic I found the writing; it certainly wasn't what I expected of a book full of heavy metal. It sucked me in and forced me to keep reading.”  – Helle SØe Gade

“Metallic Dreams doesn't just tread on your average person's sensibilities, this novel turns the volume up full blast and goes in with a raging boner.”  – Nerine Dorman

“The text inside is pure genius but he should have taken my advice and put a pair of tits on the cover.”  – DT

“Mark Rice should be kicked in the gonads for writing Metallic Dreams.”  – James Pettigrew, Scottish poet

Lastly, what lies ahead for Mark Rice? Can you tell us more about future projects?

A few projects are in the works. (1) A follow up to Metallic Dreams is underway. The title is out of this world, but I’m keeping it under my hat until release day. (2) I’m mid-way through a dark mystery novel set on the Scottish island of Lewis. It’s social commentary run amok. (3) While carrying out research for a story, I gained access to the University of Edinburgh’s Survey of Scottish Witchcraft (the most thorough record of the witch trials in Scotland between 1590 and 1727). I discovered that four members of my family – all on my mother’s side – had been tried for witchcraft. Despite the pre-trial records being thorough, with dates, alleged crimes, accusers, places and judges listed in detail, there are no records of what happened after the trials. There’s only one conclusion to be drawn from that, and it’s one I felt – and still feel - to my core. As a child, I was terrified of witches. It wasn’t a learned fear, but an innate one: My instincts bristled at the mention of the word ‘witch’ or the sight of any witch-related paraphernalia. I faced my fear and overcame it but didn’t understand its source until I found out that members of my family had suffered torture, injustice and execution in the name of witchcraft. Then I understood why witch-related things had terrified me as a child.  On some level I had been aware of the horrors inflicted on my family members: I had felt their despair. I decided to go on a shamanic journey into the past, in order to right some old wrongs using literature as my weapon. I felt four folk invoking me to tell their stories to the world, to shine the light of truth on the darkest part of my country’s history. Since then I’ve taken several shamanic journeys. These weren’t trips of imagination, but descents into the experiences of my kin in centuries past. I’ve been warned against doing this. Some people who embark on such journeys end up in a catatonic state, unable to find their way back. (4) I may publish a collection of my poems in 2013.  Of the hundreds I’ve written, some have been published in anthologies.  I like the idea of having my more polished poetry available in one volume.

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  1. Nice to meet Mark and get some insight behind Metallic Dreams. :D

    1. Thank you, Carrie! I'm glad you enjoyed the interview.